Saturday, September 20, 2008

Gifts Unlooked-For

I spent today with some of my family at a northern Pennsylvania heritage festival - demonstrations of pioneer-era domestic crafts, presentations on log rafting and the underground railroad, that sort of thing. There was also a short concert by the Seneca Moon String Band, who play Appalachian and Irish folk tunes. I was initially drawn to the stage from across the festival grounds by the reedy, Jerry Garcia-esqe strains of the autoharpist's vocals, and proceeded to settle down in the shade of the ancient maple tree looming over the portable bandshell and thoroughly enjoy the remainder of the set.

One thing that I found particularly striking, however, was something independent (so far as I can perceive) of any formal characteristics of the performance itself. I refer to the lyrics of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts" (you've heard it), a rendition of which the band started into shortly after I arrived:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

This is by no means a rarely-performed piece in modern times; perhaps especially in secular, rather than religious, settings. But what impressed itself upon me on this occasion, for the first time in memory, was just how profoundly Buddhist is the song's sentiment. Nirvana - freedom; not least of all from shame concerning our temporal circumstances - is the place [that is no place] just right, which is attained through true simplicity in mortal existence.

I have no idea what confluence of psychic contents, social setting, and neurophysical reactions to rhythmic/melodic influences caused me to perceive this semantic echo of 5th century B.C.E. India in a composition from 19th century C.E. New England, but the all-too-infrequent sense of what I can only subjectively term "transcendence" was undeniably attached to it.

No comments: